Health Info: Gastrointestinal Tract Problems

Gastrointestinal (GI) problems are common among pet rabbits and are almost always the result of a rabbit being fed an inappropriate diet.

This is an important fact to understand because it tells us that human choices are often responsible for this illness. This also means that as caregivers we can actively take measures to prevent GI problems from occurring in the first place by providing our buns with a healthy high-fiber diet, fresh water and plenty of exercise.

The rabbit digestive process. Source: http://www.therabbithouse.com (accessed 12/11/2011).

As GI problems can escalate quickly into GI emergencies, it is vitally important that caregivers recognize the early signs of GI distress:

  1. decreased or absent appetite
  2. decreased or absent fecal output

So if your bun doesn’t want his usual foods or if you notice that there are no poops in the litter box (or fewer poops than usual), it’s time for a trip to the vet. Additional signs of digestive upset may include bloating of your rabbit’s tummy, or unusually lethargic behaviour.

There are plenty of excellent articles out there on GI problems in rabbits, so I will not attempt to reinvent the wheel.  Instead, I highly recommend that all rabbit owners educate themselves by reading through the following articles selected by the House Rabbit Society. I know that it looks like a lot of reading, but your bunny will love you for being well prepared!

Problems of the Gastrointestinal Tract:

Soft/Mushy Stool

Sluggish Motility in the Gastrointestinal Tract

GI Stasis: The Silent Killer

Ileus in Domestic Rabbits

Intermittent Soft Cecotropes in Rabbits

My first companion rabbit suffered often from GI motility problems and gas, despite his excellent diet and active bunny lifestyle. The information I have summarized below was given to me as part of his patient chart from the vet and I would like to pass this information on to you. I have added the green text as a sort of checklist to ensure that you’re doing your best to prevent GI upsets.

The following has been adapted from: Common Rabbit Emergencies. British Small Animal Veterinary Congress 2010. A. L. Meredith, MA, VetMB, CertLAS, DZooMed, MRCVS. Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies, University of Edinburgh, UK.

What are some of the factors leading to reduced GI motility in rabbits?

  1. lack of dietary fiber (prevention: feed a nutritious diet high in fiber)
  2. anorexia (prevention: watch for changes in your rabbit’s appetite)
  3. chronic dehydration (prevention: always provide fresh drinking water and watch for changes in the amount of water consumed)
  4. environmental stressors (prevention: ensure that your rabbit’s environment is free from the stressors outlined below)

 Environmental stressors include:

  1. proximity of predators
  2. proximity of dominant/competative rabbit
  3. change/destabilization of group hierarchy
  4. sudden change of diet
  5. change of housing
  6. transport
  7. extremes of weather/temperature
  8. loss of a companion
  9. pain
  10. post-surgical adhesions
  11. ingestion of toxins (e.g. lead)
  12. foreign body

Indications that your rabbit is in pain include: tooth-grinding, a hunched posture, and reluctance to move.

Also included in my rabbit’s patient chart was an article emphasizing the importance of a healthy diet in preventing GI upsets. I have pasted an excerpt from this article below and highlighted in yellow the portion that I find the most interesting; the article states that a diet high in leafy greens such as lettuces may cause GI disorders. I was surprised when I read this because I have heard again and again that dark leafy green lettuces are good for rabbits… but this author puts them on the bad list!

Source: Rabbit GI Physiology: What Do I Do Now? (V727).Western Veterinary Conference 2009. J. N. Bryan, DVM, MS, PhD, DACVIM (Oncology). Washington State University, Pullman, WA, USA.

To be on the safe side, I now choose to offer my buns mostly greens that are more stem than leaf. I do still give them leafy lettuces from time to time, but only in limited amounts. They just love cilantro, dandelion and parsley, so they’re not complaining!

If you suspect that your rabbit may be suffering from a GI upset, no matter how minor, seek veterinary care IMMEDIATELY. Never take a wait-and-see approach. Get to the vet! Pronto!

Did you find this post useful? Is there anything that I can do to improve it? Please comment below!

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